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Citizenship Test Reverts To Previous Format, Frustrates Some Immigrant Educators

People stand outside in Des Moines, Iowa on June, 26, 2020. During the COVID-19 pandemic, citizenship oaths have taken place outside in a drive-thru system.
Kassidy Arena
IPR file
People take their oaths of citizenship outdoors in Des Moines last June. During the COVID-19 pandemic, oaths have taken place outside in a drive-thru format.

President Joe Biden has signed an executive order that reverts the citizenship test back to what it was before the Trump administration changed it at the end of 2020. The changing parameters have made it “chaotic” for some of Iowa’s immigrants and their educators.

On Dec. 1, the Trump administration had created the 2020 version of the test, which has 128 questions, and some say, more confusing language. The executive order on ‘Restoring Faith in Our Legal Immigration System’ reverted the test to its previous form, created in 2008. That version uses more straightforward language and has 100 questions. People taking the test on or after March 1 will take the 2008 version.

In a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) press release, officials said “USCIS determined the 2020 civics test development process, content, testing procedures, and implementation schedule may inadvertently create potential barriers to the naturalization process.”

Gianna Pugliese, a refugee education coordinator at Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI), said as an educator, the reverse is easier because she and others can pull up old files, books and study plans. But her students were just notified of the change yesterday. Now they have to change their study tactics.

“It’s still kind of like, ‘Wait, what? What's going on? We're doing this, now we're doing this, what's the difference?’ But overall, the reception was pretty good,” Pugliese said.

In 2020, more than 7.6 million people completed their naturalization process. Although Pugliese said people should still definitely study for this “easier” version, she said it has offered some relief for students.

“I think we can all relate from when we were in school, and our teachers said, ‘You have to memorize all of these, but I'm only going to test you on a certain few.’ That's the same thing for the citizenship exam,” Pugliese said. “So I think everyone can relate to that kind of relief of, 'there's fewer questions that I have to memorize.'”

There is a stipulation included in the announcement. According to USCIS, applicants who filed for naturalization on or after Dec. 1, 2020 but before the March deadline and who have an interview before April 19, can choose which test to take.

Pugliese guessed most would want the 100-question version. She said this rule wouldn’t directly affect any of their current students because they have not officially applied yet.

“I think it puts some community members in a tough spot, because they will get a letter explaining that they'll have a choice. But I mean, it might be confusing to them,” Pugliese said.

LSI was able to arrange for its students to meet with tutors to catch them up on the changes. Pugliese said since the students are currently in week eight of a ten-week citizenship course they had to “stop and reverse course of action.”

“So we have two weeks left in this current citizenship class where we need to stop and tell all of the students everything you've learned over the last eight weeks, forget it. And here's actually what you need to know,” Pugliese explained.

She said telling community partners to forget about the harder test from last year was the most frustrating part of the reversal. LSI had spread the word to libraries, community leaders and immigrant groups about the Trump administration’s change, but now they need to reach out again.

“You had this big community effort, the big push to say ‘Hey, wait, the test is changing, pay attention to when you will apply’ all of this stuff,” Pugliese said. “And now we need to reverse course and go back out into the community and say, ‘Wait, wait, I know we told you it changed. But not really. Like, forget about that.’”

The national pass rate of the 2008 version is around 91 percent. Pugliese said the reversal to the 2008 version is overall positive. Educators can now use their previous workbooks without worrying about nonexistent study help for the 2020 version.

“As an educator that fear came from, there's no time, really, to prepare, and there aren’t really any resources. So we kind of felt like we were on our own. With this change, we definitely want to make sure that the public is aware and that they're supported during this change,” Pugliese said.

Pugliese recommended students who fit the USCIS stipulation should take the whichever test they studied for and makes them feel more confident. If a person fails their first attempt on the civics exam, they may take another.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines